Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving

If the single-family home offers private space in suburbia, the car offers private mobile space. The home offers a base to which the owner can retreat, the car offers the chance to travel elsewhere. Even if the single-family home is the ultimate focus of suburbia, these homes are hard to imagine without cars in the garage or driveways (usually front-facing, sometimes in the rear) or without traveling to the suburban in something other than a car. Cars and homes are intimately connected in American society.

Americans love driving (and need convincing to instead use mass transit). The suburbs require driving. The sprawling nature of suburban communities are often ill-suited for mass transit. On one hand, driving offers freedom to go where you want when you want. It is a symbol of American individualism. On a global scale, Americans have one of the highest rates of car ownership. On the other hand, owning a car has numerous costs. It is not just the obvious costs of gas, insurance, and car maintenance (and even these add up for the average owner). Additionally, critics would argue cars are a drain on community life as people can build relationships and spend money wherever their car can take them, commuting via car can take a lot of time and can limit economic mobility, road networks are costly to maintain, have negative effects on the environment, contribute to health issues through limited walking and biking, and are a menace to pedestrians and bicyclists who want to be part of the streetscape as well as are a safety threat to drivers and passengers themselves. Even with these costs, Americans persist in driving. For example, rather than push back against highways and driving in the auto-dependent Los Angeles area, officials instead focused their efforts on getting more efficient cars. The thought of major highways closing for a few days in a sprawling region creates near panic and highways can become effective sites for protests because of the number of inconvenienced drivers.

Numerous aspects of suburbia emphasize the love of cars. The single-family home would be incomplete without a garage. As homes increased in size over the decades, so did garages. The pattern of driving out of the garage at the beginning of the day and back in at the end with minimal neighborhood interaction may not characterize every home but is common enough. Many suburban single-family home are located along residential streets that are plenty wide and can handle cars traveling at decent speeds. The fast food restaurant would not be possible without cars. What is more American than going through the McDonald’s drive-thru in the midst of another suburban trip? Think of the many commercial strips all around America with fast food restaurants and strip malls (they may even not be considered aesthetically appealing by some suburbs). Similarly, the big box store – Walmart, Costco, Ikea – and shopping malls would not be possible without cars. In these spaces, hundreds of separate drivers can congregate in massive parking lots for unparalleled choice and prices. Numerous industries, let alone the automobile industry, depend on cars, vehicles, and roads.

The suburban car is part status symbol, part lifeline to the outside world. What vehicle you have matters and judging from the vehicles around me, the suburban family life is impossible without an SUV or minivan. Not being able to drive is a huge problem (sorry teenagers and some seniors). The largest category of trips involves drives between suburbs, particularly for work as jobs are spread throughout suburban regions. Additionally, the image of soccer moms persists as kids need to get to all of their activities.

It is difficult to predict how exactly cars fit into the future of suburbs. Driverless cars may mean fewer people need to own their own vehicle (those garages can then be used to store more stuff!) but being able to relax or do work rather than drive may mean people could live even further from cities. Millennials have less interested in car ownership and driving. Numerous suburbs are pursuing denser developments, particularly along railroad or transit lines, and this could limit car use in those areas and create more walkable spaces. Yet, it is hard to imagine the American suburbs without many cars and the ability to travel from a single-family home to all sorts of places.

35 thoughts on “Why Americans love suburbs #5: cars and driving

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